If ying is shaped by yang, if light is defined by dark, if force is more potent beside counterforce, then the art of Pablo Picasso is better understood next to that of Henri Matisse. And vice versa. That at least is the concept driving ""Matisse Picasso,"" the remarkable exhibition at London's Tate Modern until Aug. 18. And it is an idea that would sit quite comfortably with the two giants of 20th century art. ""You've got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing at the time,"" Picasso said toward the end of his life. ""No one has looked at Matisse's paintings more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than him.""
It was that quotation that spurred curators Elizabeth Cowling and John Golding to mount this show, in which the work of one is elegantly exhibited ""side by side"" that of the other. ""If the idea is good enough for Picasso, it's good enough for us,"" Cowling recalls saying to Golding in 1994, just after they had completed an exhibition of Picasso sculptures at the Tate and were looking for their next project. It was such a good idea-credit Picasso-that the RŽunion des MusŽes Nationaux, MusŽe Picasso and Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Tate Modern collaborated in the seven-year curatorial process that brought it to fruition. When ""Matisse Picasso"" travels to the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in late September and moma next February, they will each add their own content and emphasis. The New York show, which will include Picasso's iconic Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, a museum treasure that cannot be lent, is likely to be the most extravagant of the three. But in whatever city or whatever time, this is the art exhibition to see.
Matisse was an established, if controversial, 37-year-old artist when he first met the precocious Spaniard, 12 years his junior, in Paris in 1906. Within the year though, Picasso had painted Les Demoiselles, a work that, artistically at least, changed absolutely everything-including the importance of the younger artist relative to Matisse.
As their rivalry and that of their followers intensified, Matisse and Picasso agreed to an exchange of paintings. Matisse chose Picasso's recently completed Pitcher, Bowl and Lemon, while Picasso came away with Matisse's portrait of his 12-year-old daughter Marguerite. The most famous account of this 1907 swap was that of Gertrude Stein, who with her brother Leo was an enthusiastic collector of both artists. While each pretended to pick the work that most interested him, Stein wrote in 1933, in fact they selected the least interesting. Matisse and Picasso reveled in pointing out the weaknesses in the other's canvas; Picasso's friends even took to throwing fake darts at Marguerite. Still, Picasso later regretted the jests made at Marguerite's expense and kept the painting until he died.
The Paris art world relished and encouraged the competition between the two. But this exhibition shows as much mutual respect as rivalry. Their common fascination with African and Oceanic tribal art, with collage (in Picasso's early days and Matisse's later ones), with the relationship between artist and model and above all with the female form-preferably nude-are continuing themes that weave in and out of this show like fugues. As do the obvious influences that one had on the other. Matisse dresses his Woman with a Veil, painted in 1927, in a style evocative of Picasso's famous Harlequin of 1915. And Picasso delves into Matisse territory-the brightly colored and exotically costumed odalisques-in his Girl Before the Mirror, painted in 1932. ""What comes across in this show,"" says curator Cowling, ""is the artists' extraordinary energy, their unwillingness to rest on their laurels and how they use their relationship as stimulus.""
Of course, each artist had his own distinctive style-or rather styles. Picasso helped invent Cubism. His Woman with a Fan, 1908, shows how enthusiastically he embraced the technique. Meanwhile Matisse, known for color and line, adopted Cubism when it suited him, most amusingly in Still Life after Jan Davidsz de Heem's ""La Desserte,"" 1915, an angular rendition of a 17th century Dutch classic in the Louvre that he had likely copied as a student. ""Picasso shatters forms,"" Matisse once said. ""I am their servant.""
But when Picasso, the restless experimenter, ventured into surrealism, Matisse chose not to follow. In fact, throughout that period, from 1924 to 1930, the two did not even meet. But by 1931, Matisse and Picasso had each moved on professionally-they both had enjoyed important retrospectives in Paris-and they resumed their friendship, seeing one another regularly until the outbreak of the war. While Picasso remained in occupied Paris and Matisse stayed in Nice, they remained in contact.
One of the most interesting pairings in the Tate show is of paintings produced in the early 1940s, both having to do with food-an understandable wartime preoccupation. In Matisse's inviting Still Life with Oysters, 1940, the plate is set in a pattern of colorful rectangles that seem to extend beyond the space, in typical Matissean style. By contrast, Picasso's gray-and-black Still Life with a Sausage, 1941, sets a terrifying table: the sausage looks like intestines, the artichokes like severed hands and the knives and forks poke out of the drawer like hands begging for mercy.
When the war was over, Picasso also moved to the south of France, and the story of the world's two greatest living artists moved into its final chapters. After being sick with cancer for years, Matisse died in 1954. ""We must talk to each other as much as we can,"" goes a quote that has been attributed to both Picasso and Matisse. ""When one of us dies, there will be some things that the other will never be able to talk of with anyone else."" One of the many ways Picasso paid homage to his only real counterpart was his 1955 painting Studio of ""La Californie."" Like Matisse's Red Interior Still Life on a Blue Table, it shows a simple rectangular space with a window overlooking a garden. But unlike the vividness of Matisse's interior, Picasso's studio is a somber one. The artist's canvas is blank, his palette rests without purpose on a chair, the windows are closed, the trees outside have lost most of their leaves. Even the small sculpture, a frequent detail in Matisse's painting, looks sad. Most telling of all, there is almost a complete absence of color. One master of innovation was gone; the other continued until his own death in 1973.
-With reporting by Jeff Chu/London
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